Succession proves an episode a week is still the best way to watch television
I have a confession: I didn't watch the third episode of Succession when it aired. In the foolish interest of "getting more sleep," I'd gone to bed before "Hunting" showed on HBO. Only waking up the next morning did I realize my grave mistake. Twitter was buzzing with references to something called "Boar on the Floor," and I had no idea what it meant. I wasn't experiencing Succession FOMO; rather, it was just the terrible, regretful "MO" part.
To be honest, there are few shows nowadays that I feel compelled to actually keep up with. The ones that still put out an episode a week often don't demand my undivided attention; I figure I can just catch up on them later if I miss a week or two here or there. Other shows no longer bother with once-a-week episodes at all: Netflix originals appear online all at once, and even live shows are adapting new strategies. Yet watching Succession this season along with seemingly everyone else on the internet has been a reminder that, however staid it might seem, the weekly release format still has a leg-up on all other newfangled TV-watching alternatives.
Even before streaming took over as the dominant way of watching television, networks experimented with how to air episodes. American Idol, as perhaps the biggest example, aired on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for almost a decade, rather than once a week like many other competition shows. Narrative shows also sometimes broke from their weekly formats, such as for special episodes like House's "Euphoria," which aired across back-to-back nights in 2006.
Still, the pre-Netflix linear TV model left little room for shows to change how and when they were watched. Netflix shook that all up when the service leaned into the home video model of offering viewers all the episodes at the same time. Binge watching subsequently exploded as a preferred viewing method and with it, a whole new way of telling serialized stories was born.
For a few years, this meant many people watched shows both ways. The first show I both binged and watched live was Breaking Bad; in anticipation of the final season, I blazed through the first four seasons, inadvertently experiencing Walter White's downward spiral in a sort of fast-forward. By the fifth season, I was itching to do the same — I wasn't used to the slow drip of the show, which in fact built steadily, using its weekly installments to milk dread, tension, and speculation from the audience. The dueling experiences of binging and watching live gave me wholly different perspectives on television, although, impatient as I am, I'd preferred the former at the time. Waiting a whole week between episodes felt positively medieval.
With streaming now practically an expectation, some network shows have been liberated from the weekly model altogether. This summer's Love Island on CBS, for example, aired a 40-minute episode every single weekday — surely not in the expectation that fans would be able to clear their schedule for the program every night, but with the understanding that it would be easy to catch up online if you fell behind (speaking personally: it wasn't). Other shows have pulled the opposite direction: Into the Dark has been airing one episode on the first Friday of every month for a year, which I like in concept although in practice I forget, or lose interest in keeping up, due to so much time passing between airings. These shows seem to be, at least in part, attempting to counteract the alienation inherent to the "all at once" episode dump favored by streaming-only services like Netflix and Amazon. With those shows, the conversation and community builds and falls apart in fits and starts, as people watch at their own disjointed paces.
After the end of Game of Thrones, it had been speculated that due to streaming, there might never be another show that would be watched communally again. To be fair, Succession isn't that; its audience is only a fraction of the size of the fans who were devoted to Westeros. Still, if I had access to the entire season of Succession, I don't think I could honestly resist binging. Instead, the slow drip of episodes is driving me pleasantly crazy. And when I skip an episode, with the flippant self-assurance that I'll just stream it later, I'm reminded of the community I'm missing out on (I pity anyone who didn't experience the real-time response to Kendall's rap).
The Emmy Awards ceremony last month felt a little like a eulogy for this kind of collective watching experience, as if an unspoken concession was being made to the dominance of streaming. And indeed, some of the most experimental and exciting shows this decade have only been possible because of internet platforms. Still, with this season of Succession, I've been reminded what I love about being forced to watch television at the same pace as everyone else: the joy of laughing at roughly the same time, wincing at the same faux pas, and collectively praying for the soul of Cousin Greg.
These days, the weekly episode might be considered TV's snow leopard: you know it's alive and well out there somewhere, but you still worry a little about its survival. As healthy as all these new experiments in serial storytelling are, it's nice sometimes to stop and appreciate the agony of actually waiting for the next episode — of realizing that there are only some odd 48 hours between now and when we find out, together, what happens next.
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